It was not that long ago that I was an eighteen-year-old boy, with a sculpted face only a craftsman could have brought to life. I sported a trunk as flat as the board on which my elementary school teacher, Coby, wasted thousands of chalks teaching the rest of the children and me, including a beauty named Odaaku. When she walked she swayed like the young stem of a cassava plant.
Coby taught us how to add and subtract numbers, and he inspired discipline. Dutifully, he would, with the strokes of a long cane across the back, punish children who, because their minds were focused either on “Odaaku the beauty” or on the “Moi-Moi,” they would buy at break time with a penny they found in their mother’s purse when she was busy in the kitchen preparing meals, did not pay attention.
I am not implying that I was in elementary school at age 18. No, I was not. In fact, I was a first-year medical student in University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan. In case you are wondering why I chose age 18 as a pivotal point for reflection, it is because that is a fascinating age for many people, especially for me. Or perhaps it was because nothing can go wrong when someone is 18; or perhaps because it was about this age that I wore this stylish shoe, the double- and the triple-decker shoes that most teenagers wore at that time.
My friends Paul, Charlie and Frank O. will remember the boots. I am not sure my cousin, Frank A., wore any. He might have missed the fashion trend by five years or so. I think most people preferred the triple-decker. Even teenagers like my cousin Jude, who was tall and did not need the extra height, still wore the shoes. Think about being on the top of a moving mountain. That was the feeling we got as we walked around, up and down the streets in search of (where it is happening) parties.
Anyway, I dug up these past intangibles (“Agwashigwas”) to show that at that time, when we were 18, we had no worries. Our parents did the worrying for us. Partly because we did not understand their intentions and partly because they did not care to explain their reasoning, we hated parental attempts to restrain us – a situation which made our parents think that, going by the manner in which we dressed and the things we cared for, prayers and miracles were the only two interventions that could save us. They did not completely lose hope in us, but their faith was on shaky ground. At church, they prayed and gave offerings on our behalf. “To God I surrender my child,” prayed my mother.
When I discussed with my brother, who by the way had a triple-decker shoe, about how dumb we were then, he reminded me that Daddy warned that someday we would be in his shoes, worrying about our own children. What a prophecy! Our parents were half right. Some of us confirmed their fears and became nothing short of mediocre, not being the best we could have been, not reaching the goals they set for us. Others, like Paul, Charlie, Dam and Valentine, hit it big; they grew up outperforming expectations, which would have made their parents proud and apologetic. In the long run it did not matter, since none of the parents are here anymore to see the future they predicted.
Just to get back on track, this essay is about men going from age 57 to 58. Without the past there can never be the future, which is why I mentioned some of the events of those long-ago days. Certainly, I wonder where all that beauty and handsomeness have gone. One day, a boy is like Odaaku, the beauty; the next day he is a worn-out beast. God could have done a better job of creating man (I hope that is not blasphemy).
Bear with me; sometimes my thoughts get ahead of me. I am sure others, like my childhood friends Paul and Charlie and Frank, wonder the same way, even though for fear of the divine wrath they will never say it.
Forty years have gone by since age 18. Then, our parents did the worrying; now, as they warned, it is our turn to worry about our children. Will they get to their destination, and will they come back home, we ask each day? We never stop asking. Will they turn out okay? What will become of them? Parental fears and anxiety are written on our faces and our hearts, like heavy woolen clothing worn by Igbo Masquerades. There is no limit to the source of our worries, not with family and friends dying with every turn of the day.
Each parental concern registers a mark on the contour of the face, carving out worry lines, and the weight of our cares drags us down the way oranges do to tree branches. For these reasons, age 58 approaches a watershed age of 60, where men (I am not sure of women) commit to a new plan in the journey of life. Some men stall or even backpedal in life activities, while others gear up and pedal forward with enthusiasm, vision and goal.
I think the latter is the better approach. I tell you, I know of people who, at age 58, walk with the vigor of an 18 year old, but think with the wisdom of Methuselah.
If you are turning 58 in December, like I do, put on a pair of sneakers, get on the treadmill and work up some sweat; or, if you have no access to a treadmill, find a trail, like the one leading to the Iyiba Stream in Akokwa, Nigeria, and walk for three miles. Count it as a present to yourself. Your knees might hurt and your back may ache, but never give up.
One more thing – and do not let anybody else tell you otherwise – keep count of all food and drink that enters your mouth. No salt and no beer or soft drinks. They are full of sugars, and they will weigh the body down and make someone at this age feel like a pile of pounded cassava.